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Cell phones create new problems in jails

Prisoners are wielding a dangerous new weapon from behind bars - cell phones. Inmates are using smuggled cell phones to order hits, arrange drug deals and plan escapes. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough looks into the problem with Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.
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Prison inmates have a dangerous new weapon, and they use it to plan murders, to plan drug deals and even escapes and possible riots, and it's cell phones.  The state of California executed Clarence Ray Allen for ordering the murder of three people from inside prison. 

States from New York to California are experiencing this crisis with guards, guards, prison guards, who are smuggling cell phones in to inmates.  You have got guards who have been charged with smuggling these cell phones and then doing it for cash.  So, how do phones get to the inmates through the guards?  Almost any way you can think of, including stuffing them inside mayonnaise jars, hiding them in compost piles, shoving them into the soles of shoes, slipping phones into hollowed-out blocks of cheese, and, of course, hiding them in body cavities.

Curtis Sliwa the founder of the Guardian Angels and a radio talk show host in New York and Phoenix Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio joined 'Scarborough Country to talk about this troubling new crisis in prison systems. 

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, 'SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY’: Sheriff, let's start with you.

I know this isn’t a problem with your prisons.  Let me ask you, though, why is this a crisis across America?  How in the world do we have these convicts who are actually getting phones from prison guards? 

JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA, SHERIFF:  Well, they're very innovative. 

We have had three instances in the past year, year-and-a-half, where we did fire two officers that brought the cell phones into the jail.  And also we had another instance where a female informer in the jail exchanged the phone from an inmate for cigarettes, because she was taking pictures of all our officers. 

But it's not a big problem, but I will tell one thing.  They will smuggle anything into the jails.  We just had a guy that smuggled 13 packs of cigarettes up his rectum.  So, they're they think they're very clever.  So, we have to crack down on the contraband smuggling, and we're doing that. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You say it's not a big deal, and it's not a big deal in your system.  It is a big deal across the country.  You said that the prison guards were fired, but shouldn't we pass tougher laws, so if there's a prison guard who is charged with the responsibility of keeping prisons safe and keeping us, by extension, safe, shouldn't they somehow be charged with a crime themselves, if they are smuggling cell phones to these convicts, who are ordering hits or trying to run their drug rings from behind bars? 

ARPAIO:  Well, sure, if you can put all the pieces together.  It all depends why, what the reason was. 

Of course it's very dangerous.  We do have about a million phone calls made out of the jail, and we record every phone call.  But when you use a cell, it's not recorded, so they're very cleaver.  They get around that program that we have with the cell phones.  So, it is a big problem.  It's high tech.  Even the prisoners are involved in high tech now. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Curtis Sliwa, let me bring you in here.

Our criminal justice system spends billions of dollars putting convicts behind bars.  We think we're doing it, keeping our families safe, keeping our community safe, keeping our cities safe, and yet we're in just as much danger from some drug lord or from some guy.  And you know about guys ordering hits.  Heck, they're trying to order hits on you.  How does it make you feel that they can order a hit on you or your family now from behind bars? 

CURTIS SLIWA, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, in fact, it was John Gotti Sr., while waiting to be transported to Marion Federal Penitentiary to do triple life without parole, who ordered a hit on me in the summer of 1992, except it wasn't through a cell phone or through a landline.  It was by conversation with his own son, John Gotti Jr., who was the messenger. 

No, you are absolutely right.  But you know something, Joe?  We don't pay attention to the prisons.  Once we take these enemies of society off the street, as far as we're concerned, as the taxpayers, out of sight, out of mind.  As long as there's not a prison riot, as long as there's no escapes, we don't care what goes behind the walls, and nor do we care who the correctional officers are. 

So, for instance, if you're a guy and you're in a dormitory, you know, you have a body alarm.  There's 40 of the cretins with chromosome damage, and the job doesn't obviously necessarily get the pay grade that we ought to get it, based on the fact of who we're asking these jailers to be able to control, as if they were sort of the three-ring circus, trying to control the wild animals.

And then naturally they figure nobody's going to care.  First, it's the provolone, the prosciutto.  Then it's the Thunderbird, the Mad Dog 20-20, the drugs.  Now we will give him a cell phone.  It's sort of like a pacifier.  As long as we keep the convicts cool, calm and collected, we will give them a home theater, big-screen TV, anything to pacify them, so they don't become a problem. 

There should be integrity tests, because, look, in Congress—you served there.  We had Abscam.  We have Abramoff.  Look how many congressmen and congresswomen on both sides of the aisle would go for corruptive practices if we didn't sometimes bag them and tag them.

SCARBOROUGH:  And they need to go to jail.  Obviously, your congressmen and senators need to go to jail if they're bought off.

And these prison guards, I don't care how much they're being paid.  If they have decided to take that position, if they do something like this, we need to throw them in jail, and they can sit there with the inmates that they're serving right now. 

SLIWA:  Yes.  But, Joe, we, as the public, don't necessarily care what goes on in the prison, as long as people aren't escaping, as long as there aren't prison riots. 

I think we as the taxpayers need to know more about what is going on in prison.  And I think, also, we need to sort of put prison guards on a pedestal, so that they when they do a good job, we give them recognition and attention.  We give them benefits and a good pay grade.  But we subject them to integrity tests, so that we are fair and square.  We take the bad ones out and praise the good ones who stay.  


ARPAIO: Let's not blame all the officers.  There's other ways to smuggle contraband into the jails, not just by officers.  I did mention a couple.  We just had a case last week with pigeons where we have intelligence they're smuggling contraband with dead pigeons thrown—I have a tent city, Curtis, with 2,000 people in the desert at 141 degrees. 

So, don't talk about how people run the jails.  I run the toughest jail probably in America, with 13-cent meals, tent city.  I chain gangs.  I can go on and on.  We do run a tough jail system.

SCARBOROUGH:  But if you look what's happening in Sacramento, if you look what's happening in Baltimore, if you look at what's happening across America, obviously, we have got problems with prison guards who are on the take and who are, in effect, working for the convicts that they're supposed to be guarding. 

ARPAIO:  I'm sure that's not all over the place.  That may be isolated incidents, when you have thousands and thousands of dedicated correction and detention officers. 

We are picking out just a few.  We don't want to degrade all the officers because of a couple bad apples.  We have bad apples in government, too, don't we?  We have bad apples in a

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, Sheriff, and the thing we do, when we find out we have bad apples in those occupations, we face down the problems that we have and we fix them. 

And this is a problem that needs to be fixed.  Maybe Curtis is right.  Maybe we're not paying our prison guards enough.  Maybe we need to pay them more.  But it is a growing problem.  And it's going to keep getting bigger and bigger, until our government officials step up and make sure, again, that our prisons are safe, and when we throw somebody behind bars, we don't have to worry about them ordering hits or running drug rings in our neighborhoods, or doing other things, again, that puts our communities at risk.